Is that Swedish ‘sj-sound’ really a sibilant?

Swedish has a sound /s/, broadly similar to English /s/ in, for example, English seep. I’ve known for a long time that Swedish also has 2 other sibilant consonants, which I’d thought corresponded roughly to English /ʃ/, as in English sheep. Common transcriptions for those 2 sibilants in the International Phonetic Alphabet are /ɕ/ and /ɧ/. 

In Swedish, /ɕ/ is called  tj-lyude ( ‘the tj-sound’) and  /ɧ/ is called sj-ljudet (‘the sj-sound’). These names arose because the ways of spelling these sounds in native Swedish words include:

  • for the tj-sound: <tj>, as well as <kj> and before front vowels <k>.
  • for the sj-sound: ⟨sj⟩, as well as ⟨sk⟩, ⟨skj⟩, ⟨stj⟩. Several other spellings occur in words borrowed from other languages, including the spellings ⟨ch⟩, ⟨g⟩, ⟨j⟩, ⟨sch⟩, ⟨sh⟩, ⟨si⟩, ⟨ssi⟩, ⟨ssj⟩ and ⟨ti⟩.

Before a recent trip to Sweden, I decided to brush up my Swedish. I’ve dabbled in learning Swedish (and Norwegian and Danish) from time to time over many years. I reported on my most recent effort at https://languagemiscellany.com/tag/challenge/ 

A difficult sound

As part of my recent brushing-up exercise, I used DuoLingo for the first time. (I’ll write more about DuoLingo separately.) In doing so, I had little trouble with /ɕ/, but found /ɧ/ much more difficult.

One thing really threw me in both the listening and speaking exercises. In the listening exercises, I kept hearing a sound that I couldn’t identify at all. After a while, I realised that this sound was /ɧ/, which occurs in some very common words, such as sju (‘seven’), pronounced /ɧʉ/. Unexpectedly, I kept hearing the initial consonant as /f/, not as a sibiliant. Even after many attempts, I still heard it as /f/ and couldn’t recognise it quickly as the sj-sound.

What’s more, in the speaking exercises, I found that the program wasn’t recognising my attempts to pronounce this consonant. I often had to repeat it many times before the program would let me move on. My attempts must have been a long way off target because I have found that Duolingo often accepts quite poor attempts at pronunciation.

When I got to Sweden, I made a point of listening out for the sj-sound. Travelling by train, I often heard a striking example: station. To me, this sounded every time like /stahyon/, with the middle consonant sounding like /h/ and not anything like English /ʃ/—and nothing like the /f/ I thought I heard at the beginning of words like sju

What do people say about the sj-sound?

Most things I have read about the pronunciation of /ɧ/ agree that:

  • the sj-sound is one of the hardest parts of Swedish pronunciation for foreign learners to identify and to produce.
  • native speakers of Swedish vary greatly in how they pronounce /ɧ/. And although Swedish speakers generally distinguish /ɧ/ from /ɕ/, some Swedish speakers pronounce /ɧ/ in a way that overlaps with how some other Swedish speakers pronounce /ɕ/.
  • there are disagreements about exactly where the tongue approaches the upper part of the mouth in producing this sound. Phoneticians also disagree on whether this near-contact occurs in one place or in 2 places.
  • for the above reasons, there isn’t full consensus on how to transcribe either of these sounds in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), even though the International Phonetic Association devised the symbol /ɧ/ for the sj-sound.

What does the IPA say?

The Handbook of the International Phonetic Association (1999) contains an appendix containing illustrations of applying the IPA to various languages. The illustration on Swedish (written by Olle Engstrand for the IPA’s Journal in 1990) gives the following descriptions:

  • /ɕ/: voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative.
  • /ɧ/: voiceless dorso-palatal / velar fricative. Table 3 of appendix 2 to the IPA Handbook gives a slightly different description: simultaneous voiceless postalveolar and velar fricative

Further description

The phonetician and phonologist JC Wells describes this sound in section 3.5 (the Swedish sj-sound) of his 2014 bookof Sounds Interesting: Observations on English and General Phonetics. After citing the above descriptions from the IPA Handbook, Wells comments: ‘this articulation is often accompanied by lip protrusion. The overall effect is of a voiceless fricative with no very determinate place of articulation but rather a long channel constriction.’

By this, I think Wells means that the friction is produced not by a short length of the tongue coming close to the upper part of the mouth, as it would in, for example, the sounds /s/ (close to the top of the mouth at the alveolar regions just behind the top teeth) or /x/ (close to the back of the mouth: the velum). Rather, a longer section of the tongue forms a channel against the upper mouth. This channel extends from just behind the teeth all the way to the velum at the back of the mouth.

Advice for 2nd language learners

Wells’ advice to non-Swedes is to start with a velar fricative /x/ [as in Scottish English loch or German ach], and add a simultaneous darkish /ʃ/ [as in English shoe] and protrude and round the lips.

Wells adds some comments he received from Olle Kjellin, ‘author of several books on teaching Swedish pronunciation to foreigners:

  • the lip rounding involves the same lip shape as in the long sound /uː/.
  • the sj-sound is not co-articulated with the following vowel. It keeps the /uː/ shape at all times, even before front unrounded vowels.
  • the best way to learn the sound is to start with words with a following /u/ or /uː/, such as skjorta (‘shirt’), journalist, lection (lek’ɧuːn). After extensive practice, move on to skina (‘shine’), giraffe, själv (self). Finally, move on to the most difficult word: sju /ɧʉ/ (‘seven.)
  • the lip shape is similar to the lip shape for whistling.

Another description

Here is another description, from Swedish English by Erik Singer http://www.yorku.ca/earmstro/scandinavia/Swedish/Swedish%20breakdown.pdf

Singer notes the IPA definition of /ɧ/ as ‘simultaneous ʃ and x’, but says this sound actually has a number of different allophones. The main two variants ‘both involve some degree of velar approximation/frication and a particular kind of lip-rounding called ‘outrounding’ or exolabial rounding (the lips corners are braced in towards one another slightly while the lips protrude, bringing the inner, wet surfaces of the lips into approximation)’.

  • One common allophone also involves a kind of very tight, squished-up retroflex [ʂ], where the tip and sides of the tongue are all pressed up inside the upper teeth. [x͡ʂ̞ ʷ̝ ]
  • The other common allophone involves a less tense [ʂ]̞ but also some lip-rounding and friction between the inside surface of the lower-lip and the top teeth—call it [f]. [x͡ʂ̞ ̞͡ fʷ̟ ]

Conclusion

Having read quite a lot about the Swedish sj-sound over the last few weeks, I agree that it is difficult to describe and even more difficult to pick up in listening and to produce. I’ll have to look for opportunities for more practice.

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